Emotions, Feelings, and Mass Murder

woman with tear-stained face, showing emotions and feelings

Understanding Emotions

This column is about emotions. It’s about the importance of feeling and of knowing what we feel. When we don’t recognize our emotions, we become vulnerable to the manipulation of tyrants. When we refuse to look within ourselves at our own emotional storm, we end up projecting our evil onto women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, the vulnerable, and the broken.

A few days ago, seventeen more children died from gunfire, this time in a Florida high school on Valentine’s Day. So much hatred spilling out on a day of love.

Such violence occurs, in part, because we refuse to acknowledge and honor our emotions.  Whether we realize it or not, our emotions affect us. They can encourage us to justify cruelty, cling to discredited information, and throw out simplistic statements like, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Or they can move us to support and nurture others, and they can help us heal.

woman with tear-stained face, showing emotions and feelings

When Children Die

Part of the healing comes when we grieve.

Life can be taken so quickly. We wake in the morning, get ready for the day, prepare our children, send them out, and we expect them to come home again. Never do we imagine that by afternoon, those same children might be cold and dead, their souls departed and the lives of the survivors forever shattered. So we mourn, and we pray, and we feel our feelings, and eventually we find some healing.

This is important. As individuals, we need to mourn such loss.

Yet I’m also concerned about the healing we, as a country, need to do so we can keep our children safe in public places. We already know that too many children are unsafe at home. Abuse and torment are far too common. Is there no place young people can go to rest, to restore, to learn, to grow into their dreams without worrying they might be targeted and destroyed? When will be examine our motives, acknowledge our feelings, and change?

Pure Evil

Florida governor, Rick Scott, said about the shooting, “This is just pure evil.” [1]

Does he mean to say that death by violence is evil? On the face of it, I would agree. Yet how does that help us understand what is happening? How does it help us respond?

Perhaps Scott meant that the perpetrator is evil. That is less certain. People do aggressive things for so many reasons. A young man’s emotions, sensations, longings, goals, thoughts, and hormones have coalesced into a horrible action, but to call him evil seems too simplistic, a statement designed more to make us feel comfortable turning our backs on the situation than to encourage us to accept our culpability in this terrible, and all too common, tragedy.

You might wonder how we are culpable for what this deranged human being has done.

How Did this Happen?

Nikolas Cruz is an orphan, ostracized by his peers, caught up in America’s macho fascination with revenge and weapons, so can you blame him and him alone? Of course not every child who has lost parents or who is bullied lashes out in such a way. Yet Cruz did not come into this world with the intention of murdering anyone. I doubt his parents or guardians taught him to kill. So how did he become this way?

We don’t really know. I suspect our culture, our society, is largely to blame, but that’s just one of the many theories out there. Some theories are more researched or reasoned than others, but they’re still just guesses. Probably most of them contain truth, and none are the full truth.

Nonetheless, we take sides as if we could be certain. We argue and posture and call one another names. We act as if the debate is somehow reasonable, that we are merely disagreeing about ideas, but that is not true. Though we pretend to be rational, in reality, we are lost in our sensations, feelings, and emotions – or our lack of them.

Emotions can destroy us and threaten others. Mobs are swayed by passionate speeches. Especially now, when the internet feeds our isolation and makes us comfortable with misinformation and lies, our emotions can enflame us. Yet without emotions, we could not care, find anything sacred, or experience peace.

Numbness and Sociopathy

We see this effect in people so numbed by drugs they feel nothing. In that moment of emptiness, they are not evil, though they may behave that way. When we lose our capacity to feel, we no longer care about consequences. Selling our bodies, betraying our spouse, neglecting our children, conning a neighbor all appear logical at the time. Numbed by the drug, we lose our capacity to empathize.

In this way, someone active in her addiction looks like a sociopath. [2] A sociopath does not empathize with others. He has no conscience because he cannot feel. In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout points out that our conscience arises out of our capacity to love. “It lives in the part of the brain that reacts emotionally.” [3] Because we feel attached to others, we care about what they think of us, and we try to please them. Without that sense of attachment, we only want to please ourselves.

A lack of attachment is not freedom, however. The person who cannot feel joy, compassion, and love is is trapped by her need to “win,” just as as an addict is trapped by the drug. Stout reports that some sociopaths talk about feeling “empty” or “hollow.” She thinks they target people with strong values and integrity because they envy those confident and self-assured individuals. They seem dissatisfied with their lives. [4] Because they know nothing of kindness and friendship, they feel driven to dominate others. They might claim they are superior, but inside, they are empty. [5]

Feelings Versus Emotions

But what do we mean when we say sociopaths feel or don’t feel? Are feelings the same as emotions? Are they sensations?

Different people give different answers to that question.

Mark Robinson, in his article about feelings, writes that “feelings are an internal awareness which gives us information about our relationships and which prompts us to act on our own behalf. They are data and they are energy.” [6]

According to this definition, feelings are akin to the sensations we experience, and we feel them consciously. A sociopath, or even a numbed-out addict, might receive data from her body. Does this mean she can feel, after all?

In “What’s the Difference Between a Feeling and an Emotion?,” Neel Burton chooses to distinguish between an “emotional experience,” which is momentary, and an “emotion,” which can last for years. When we love someone, for instance, our emotion can last for most of a lifetime. Within that loving state, we might also experience fleeting moments of anger, jealousy, joy, or longing, all of which can be emotional experiences. Burton posits that emotions come and go beneath our conscious awareness, but that we consciously recognize our emotional experiences. [7]

Understanding things a little differently, the neurologist, Antonio R. Damasio explains that emotions are our body’s reaction to stimuli, such as a racing heart or sweaty palms. They become feelings only when our conscious minds observe them. [8]

Becoming Aware

How exactly we define emotion or feeling has more to do with semantics than with the activity in our bodies. I was taught that feeling is akin to sensation and emotion is the resonant meaning we attach to those feelings. This says nothing about how conscious those feelings or emotions are. Unlike Damasio, I suspect we are sometimes unaware of our emotions, while with practice, we can be conscious of our sensations.

This is important. Indeed, to stem violence and hatred, we must learn the stillness and patience required to develop an awareness not only of our emotions, but also of our feelings or physical sensations. Unless we connect with our bodies and emotions, we cannot empathize with others. We become like the addict caught up in the rush of her addiction or the sociopath who cares only about the game and being on top.

Unreasoned Statements

Such obliviousness is a kind of ignorance. It shows up in statements like the ones below, made in defense of the author’s limited understanding of the Second Amendment.

“The Constitution is not flexible, fluid,” Luke writes in response to an article advocating a mere minimum of gun control. “This is FACT. The Second Amendment is there to protect US from the government” so we can have “weaponry equal to the army’s.” [9]

Phil writes, “Like it or not, the Second Amendment is our last line of defense against an out of control and tyrannical government.”

But Luke’s final statement is perhaps the most telling: “[I]t comes down to this: you want to take my AR [or any other firearm]? I’ll happily deliver…80 gr at a time, at ~1400 fps.” [10]

These are not reasoned statements. They arise out of emotion, an emotion the men probably don’t recognize and certainly can’t manage. Perhaps beneath their entrenched beliefs lie fear, annoyance, a deep hunger in their bones, a sadness over their position in life, disdain for those who “can’t take care of themselves,” or some twisted self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. I don’t know. What is clear, though, is that they did not form their values from research and thoughtful consideration.

Learning Values

Few of us do, actually. We learn our values some from our friends and our culture, but mostly from those who raise us. Because we need care and comfort when we are young, we seek attachment. We might call that love. To gain that love, we try to win approval from the adults around us. If approval is to come at all, for in some families it doesn’t, it will come when the child lives out the values the parents or guardians teach.

Do we learn to be strong, independent, aggressive? Or do we learn to be gentle, kind, and submissive? These attitudes are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the only ones we learn as we grow.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking ourselves what values we hold. Then we can consider what emotions feed those values? Men who cling to their guns look more like posturing baboons and strutting peacocks than the courageous and practical men they might wish to be. Why do they fall prey to such instinctual behavior? Who knows? Rich and powerful men have long used their positions to control other human beings, and that may be reason enough.

I doubt Cruz is like that, though. He didn’t expect women would flock to him if he showed how strong he was by mowing down a bunch of classmates. It’s possible he was seeking a kind of perverse status. Most likely, he was expressing a pain so deep he no longer felt it.

Saving Our Children

How do we save our children? By this I mean not just save the ones who would die, but also the ones who would kill.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a simple solution. Not only are the beliefs and emotions on both sides entrenched, but even if we listened to one another, there’s no quick fix. The change we need to make is systemic. We need to revise our understanding of the world, of who we are, and of what it means to live together as neighbors. We need to deepen our empathy. That means we need to get in touch with our sensations, feelings, emotions, and even thoughts.

Not that we can’t effect change with gun laws and by paying better attention to those who are depressed or ostracized. In a previous column, I highlighted the research of Stephen and Joyce Singular in The Spiral Notebook. Their insights help us understand the mind of the mass murderer, and such understanding can then inform our solutions.

Ultimately, though, we must decide what matters most. Do we value the lives of vulnerable children, or would we rather hold onto our games, our power, and our ignorance? If we care about our children, we must learn to understand ourselves, our instincts, our feelings, our emotions. Then we must honor them, and we must heal.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Segarra, Lisa Mari, Katie Reilly, Eli Meixler, and Jennifer Calfas, “Sheriff’s Office Had Received About 20 Calls Regarding Suspect: The Latest on the Florida School Shooting,” Time.com, http://time.com/5158678/what-to-know-about-the-active-shooter-situation-at-florida-high-school/, accessed 2/17/18.
  2. I am not using the term “sociopath” clinically. Psychopath has also been used to describe the person without a conscience, who cannot feel empathy. Their capacity to feel emotions in general appears to be limited.
  3. Stout, Martha, The Sociopath Next Door, New York: Broadway Books, 2005, 191.
  4. Ibid 50.
  5. Ibid 51.
  6. Robinson, Mark, “Feelings: the interior domains of Sensation, Thought, Emotion, and Wish,” Just Conflict: Transformation through Resolution, http://www.creativeconflictresolution.org/jc/maps-1/feelings-domains.html, accessed 2/17/18.
  7. Neel Burton “What’s the Difference Between a Feeling and an Emotion?” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201412/whats-the-difference-between-feeling-and-emotion, accessed 2/13/18.
  8. Lenzen, Manuela, “Feeling Our Emotions,” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-our-emotions/, accessed 2/13/18.
  9. The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Luke’s interpretation seems a little loose.
  10. All quotes from the comment section of the article “Fuck You, I Like Guns,” written by Anna, https://agingmillennialengineer.wordpress.com/2018/02/15/fuck-you-i-like-guns-2/#comments, accessed 2/18/18.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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